Boundaries… such a buzzword, but an important one at that. Many of us have struggled at some point with setting and maintaining boundaries as creative service providers, myself included. It’s through those challenging moments that we learn the importance of boundaries in business and what that looks like for each of us.
For our fifth installment of the Guest Expert Series in Quill Collective, we chat with Xanthe Appleyard of Oh Sierra all about client communication and boundaries, specifically in the frame of a creative studio. As the Creative Director and CEO of Oh Sierra, Xanthe knows first-hand the importance of well-maintained client relationships and when and how to stick to those boundaries for the best experience for everyone. Let’s dive in!
Q: Can you tell us a little about your business and where you’re located?
A: My name is Xanthe and I’m the Co-Founder of Oh Sierra, a branding and web design studio, along with my partner and husband. We started the business about three years ago, and have since grown to more of an agency model in addition to offering mentorship to other creatives. We are originally from Canada, but we’re currently based out of Tulum, Mexico. We had the opportunity to purchase a place a few months ago, and we jumped on it! One of our long-term goals and dreams is to have multiple rental properties around the world and this is the first step towards getting there!
Q: Share with us about your background as a brand and web designer and how you got here today?
A: Totally! My route to this career is a little bit unconventional. I began my post-high school career by attending college for business marketing. And while the marketing is definitely something I utilize in the business now, I ended up dropping out of that program as it just wasn’t for me at the time. I moved back home and began going to a local school studying political science. While I was in school, I had the opportunity to work at a small, local clothing shop. The owners of this store were from Guatemala and I ended up helping them with communications efforts for their marketing and writing copy for their website. This was also when Instagram had just started, and they needed someone to help them with their social media efforts.
Concurrently, a friend of mine pushed me to enroll in a one-year PR and design program that she was also doing. Since I didn’t have solid plans for post-grad life, and so I joined and I ended up loving the program. It allowed me to connect with a bunch more local businesses in a deeper creative capacity, and became my first introduction to the world of graphic design. From there, I started working with businesses on their communications efforts, but I was also able to use other skills in the design space and it sort of snow-balled from there. There came a point where my husband, who at the time was also working in marketing for another small business, was helping me with some projects and we realized that we had a lot to offer working together as a team and Oh Sierra was born!
Q: Coming from a PR background, how have you implemented those skills into your business model?
A: One of the things that we consistently hear from our clients is that what sets us apart is our ability to communicate effectively. This happens through speedy, clear email responses and simply being able to articulate what our services and processes are. We’ve heard a lot of horror stories from clients about bad experiences with brand and web designers in particular, and most of that comes down to poor communication. To me, this is one of the biggest challenges the industry as a whole faces. Someone can be amazing at art and design, but if they can’t communicate well with their clients, they won’t make the impact they could otherwise.
Q: You use the term “compassionate communication” a lot. What does that mean to you, and what does that look like in your business?
A: This term is the idea that you can communicate and connect with others on a personal level that says to them, “I get where you’re at, and I understand where you’re coming from. We’re both in this experience together, so how can we meet in the middle and make this positive.” So compassionate communication can happen at any point really, it can happen during positive, neutral, and negative exchanges. We want to meet people where they’re at and remain conscious that they’re a human being at the other end of that email or DM or feedback. It is definitely a balance of being firm in your own values as a business owner but also being understanding of their unique situation and being willing and open to work with them on a solution that abides by both parties.
Q: Speaking more about boundaries, how do you implement healthy boundaries into your business?
A: From our perspective, boundaries can look like others respecting and understanding our process, but also respecting us as human beings. One of the biggest boundaries we had to set in place was around time and what the access to us would like for clients. So we’ve made sure that throughout our process working with clients, we’ve made it clear that there are only certain available times for calls or video chats. It’s also really important for us to receive anything, feedback or questions, in written form. We maintain this because seeing it written out allows us to accurately assess if it’s something that can be addressed on a call or if it’s a question that’s more for a consulting retainer. In our jobs, we are closely working with others in their business and it’s very easy for them to feel like they can have access to you at any time and also that they can ask you for advice on absolutely anything. Knowing at what point am I charging for information and being clear on what is in your scope of work is very crucial.
In terms of tangibly implementing these boundaries and following through on them, it’s truthfully looking to our contracts and reminding folks of the boundaries at every touchpoint we have with them. There’s no such thing as over-communicating, and it’s to the benefit of both parties.
Q: Can you share a time where your boundaries weren’t being respected and how did you react and handle the situation?
A: Yes, I have a few really great examples! The first is a broad one that happened with a few clients regarding them using multiple different communication avenues — like DM-ing us inspiration but also texting us. We had to put a stop to that because it became confusing and information was getting lost. We turned to our lawyer to really help outline that in our contracts moving forward.
Another real life example, we were working with a client for both branding and web design and he had been super happy and clear throughout the whole process. There may have been a few red flags at the start, he called a lot, but otherwise he adhered to our processes. When we sent him the first draft of the web design, he immediately replied and asked if he could call us. And as you know, that’s an immediate no-no and not effective for the client or us. At this moment, we had recently added these guidelines for delivering feedback into our contracts and went back and forth on if we should just get on the call or stand our ground. In the end, we set back a reply that very kindly requested that he write out some bullet points of feedback for the site so that we could better prepare for the call and from there we could book a time to chat. He replied that he wanted to pull the plug on the project, and while it was a bad situation we realized we were glad that we maintained that boundary in our processes because that wasn’t a client we wanted to give more energy to since he couldn’t respect us.
Another example is a positive one. We had a client who was sending us a lot of DM’s of inspiration she had for her project. We ended up making a quick email that said something like, “hey, we’re just finding that we’re starting to lose track of some of this stuff. We’d love it if we could keep it to email from now on. Keep in mind we also work with a team, so it;s hard to track everything from IG DM’s, especially personal accounts”. We set that boundary in a friendly tone and she was super chill about it and has compiled ever since.
So honestly, it can go one of two ways. But I firmly believe that when you stand up for your boundaries, you’re going to feel better even if it doesn’t necessarily go as you hoped for.
We had a client once say, “a boundary is the safe place where we can meet” and that really stuck with me. So by laying a boundary down, you are telling your clients that this is the place that you’re most comfortable and where we can do the best for them. Quite often people are pushing boundaries, because they don’t even know that they’re there, and with gentle, reminders you can get them to understand and likely follow suit.
Q: Part of boundaries, is utilizing systems to help enforce those boundaries seamlessly. Can you walk us through some of the tools that you use to do so?
A: For us, the contract is #1 as it sets the tone for expectations for communication, delivering feedback, and the project scope. We use Dubsado for all of our contracts at the moment, and we definitely take advantage of the canned response feature to have drafted, on-brand, responses ready for a variety of situations. We have emails ready to send for certain milestones, but we usually manually send those even though they’re pre-written.
Q: As designers, we can get emotional and attached to our work. Do you have any advice you would give to a fellow creative about approaching receiving feedback?
A: Feedback is tricky and my #1 tip would be to try and guide feedback by explaining to clients what is constructive feedback and what isn’t helpful. It’s as simple as walking them through scenarios of what’s productive and what isn’t. You can also prep potential clients by sharing your processes on social media or in blog posts. It can be as simple as going onto your IG stories and walking through the process of working together. While this seems straight-forward, people are watching and it primes any potential leads to be educated on how you work.
We lean on questionnaires sent through Dubsado for feedback and we ask very specific questions that are helping to guide the clients to give the most useful feedback possible to help us make the work better. I think making it as simple for you and for them to get the information you need to move forward is important! And don’t be afraid to keep digging deeper if they don’t give you enough from them.
Q: What are some tips for folks currently struggling to maintain their boundaries?
A: Do not reply to emails after working hours or on weekends! You can write the reply and schedule them for the following Monday or morning. But I recommend not even setting the precedent that you are on email after work hours or on the weekend. Lead by example for how you want your clients to act.
Another tip is to reflect on what part of your life you want to protect the most. Make a list and take stock of what boundaries are most important to you. Analyze what are the things that you feel you’re not protecting enough and you want to protect. Once you establish those non-negotiables, you can better determine how you want to honor them through boundaries and what the specifics look like.
Q: Where can people connect with you online?
A: We’re super active on Instagram, so please connect with us there for sure! We love to share lots of insight into running an aligned business and connecting with other creatives. You can also visit us on our website!
For all Quill Collective members Xanthe was kind enough to offer a Boundary Setting Toolkit, which includes prompts for tough situations and canned responses as guidance. Join Quill Collective to catch the full replay and get access to that toolkit!